Well-to-Wheel: Energy Sources of Combustion Vehicles

In my previous post, we went through the energy usage of the oil industry, and discovered that big oil’s total annual electricity usage was around 7.4PWh. We touched very lightly on the energy sources that power the 636 refineries that produce the world’s petroleum. I skimmed over that one as it would have been a LONG post. So today I am looking into worldwide energy production.

The Shift Project Data Portal is great place to find all kinds of information about our energy usage, so let’s see what they have to say in their breakdown below:



Of the electricity produced worldwide, 39% comes from coal, 22% comes from gas, 17% comes from hydroelectric, 11% is nuclear, 5% oil, and 7% comes from other energy sources such as solar and wind. The data is pretty conclusive right? We need fossil fuels to power our world. Wrong. The catch is this: coal alone produces enough energy to satisfy the oil industry’s needs. 8,762TWh, or 8.76PWh of electricity come from coal power plants every year.

OPEC countries get their electricity mostly from gas – a whopping 63% of electricity produced in OPEC countries comes from gas, 24% from oil. 12% comes from hydroelectric, and the rest is made of nuclear, geothermal, and other sources such as solar and wind.

Gas used for electricity production is usually natural gas – a by-product of crude oil – which is comprised primarily of methane. In 2004, the use of natural gas produced 5.3 billion tons of CO2. While natural gas is up to 44% cleaner than coal or oil (according to the IPCC Fourth Annual Report), it is still a massive amount of carbon emissions.

So we have established that coal is the largest source of electricity in the world. Why? I have no idea – it has an entire industry sector dedicated to supplying it’s fuel, so not a great way to produce electricity. Gas is at least justifiable – better it be burned and produce CO2 than let a massive amount of explosive methane gas loose on the planet – if still quite polluting.

But both of these are still fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are, by their very nature, inefficient. We tear the planet apart to extract oil from oilsands, deep sea wells, land-based oil reserves etc. We move large amounts of dirt and rock, detonate explosives, and douse the planet with sulphuric acid to extract oilsands, coal, and other resources. All of this takes energy. Huge amounts… of energy.

Electricity production worldwide is a pretty messy story when you put all of this together. In one long, annoying, convoluted sentence:

Electricity is used to extract oil to produce fuel to transport oil to produce fuel to power equipment that is used to mine oilsands to extract oil to produce fuel that powers equipment used for the extraction of coal to produce electricity to allow oil refineries to operate to produce fuel to power the vehicles that deliver fuel to your local petrol station to power your car.

That is a mouthful in itself – and yet happens to be an extraordinarily simplified version of what really happens. All you need to take away is this – oil production is extremely polluting. This is why we need to ditch fossil fuels. It isn’t just about cars – it is the entire supply chain of electricity that needs to change.


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